This week’s NME celebrates The Specials, a fiercely political band who, in their brief recording career, penned songs about onrushing nuclear doom (‘Man At C&A’), street crime (‘Concrete Jungle’), apartheid (‘Nelson Mandela’) and the grinding horror of mass unemployment (‘Ghost Town’).
In the issue, singer Terry Hall wonders aloud what happened to that white-hot early ‘80s confluence of music and counter-cultural rage. “There’s no rebellion,” he says. “I see bands today and I think, ‘What do you have to say? Why are you bothering?'”
Which seems a bit harsh. I mean, has he not heard Jedward’s Vanilla Ice cover? That’s gritty social commentary right there.
Even so, Hall’s words echoed in my head last Sunday, while I was at a demonstration against bankers’ bonuses in Hyde Park. It was organized by Billy Bragg, who is rightly apoplectic about RBS’ cartoonishly evil plan to splurge £1.5 billion in bonuses for themselves, barely a year after being rescued by £20 billion of taxpayer cash.
Prior to the protest, 28,000 people had signed up to Bragg’s Facebook campaign, NoBonus4RBS. How many of those Facebook warriors do you think showed up on the day?
Er, about 60 by my count.
Why the paltry turnout? OK, it was a freezing Sunday lunchtime in January, and there was a desultory tennis match to be sighed at on the telly, but still – 60 people. I’ve seen Shed Seven comeback gigs that were better attended than that.
Bragg deserved better (and in fact he’s going to try again this Sunday). His speech was eloquent, passionate, measured, movingly righteous. The fact so few were there to hear it exposes the limits of online campaigning.
Ask us to register our outrage within a few mouse clicks – by getting an old rap-metal song to Number One via download sales, for example – and we’re bang up for it. Tell us to go a step further, to engage with the world beyond our keyboards, and we can’t be arsed.
But there’s something about this forlorn mini-protest I found far more troubling. Why is it left to an old-guard firebrand like Billy Bragg to be music’s voice of dissent? He’s 52. With respect, hearing a familiar veteran of the left ranting about inequality instills a sense of déjà vu. You can’t help but think a younger face might have attracted more attention. But who?
The bleak truth is that not a single member of the current generation of music stars is up to the job. We live in a hedonistic age, not a committed one. Gallows speak of tearing down their establishment (“Britain is fucked”), but their nihilistic venom is somewhat undercut by the fact that they’re sponsored by Coca-Cola-owned Relentless Energy Drink.
Pop stars might be willing to support apolitical causes that will lend them a PR halo – Simon Cowell’s Haiti charity single, for example, or Dappy from N-Dubz’s Beatbullying campaign (which he rather spoiled by texting death threats to a young mother). They’re less inclined to say anything partisan, or opinionated.
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Who can we rely on to fight the power? Reverend And The Makers’ Jon McClure is certainly politically outspoken, but he’s a buffoonish, Citizen Smith-type character. The Enemy exhibited flickers of a social conscience on their debut album, but seemed to lose interest once they’d made a bit of money, at which point singer Tom Clarke bought an E-Type Jaguar and a ”ridiculous farm”.
Thom Yorke? He’ll talk about politics, but he’s frustratingly reluctant to sing about it, except in the most maddeningly abstract terms (‘You And Whose Army’ is supposedly a broadside against the political establishment, but with elliptical lines like “We ride tonight/Ghost horses…”, it’s hardly ‘Fuck Tha Police’).
This absence of explicit dissent is all the more puzzling because there’s plainly so much to be angry about right now. Climate catastrophe, economic apocalypse, the increasing fame and popularity of Alex Reid. I’m not suggesting all musicians should be singing earnest protest songs and waving placards. But isn’t it a bit weird, in an election year, that none of them are?